Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris is another Book About Books for my ongoing reading project–the longest-running one on this blog. As I’ve noted before, I began reading this kind of book as a deliberate exploration of the genre (what do people say?) and now I am also always curious about voice (how do they say it?).

Fadiman has lots of charming and interesting and erudite things to say about books, and about readers, but I actually found her voice a but off-putting. I think my reaction is related to one I’ve had before about writing that is really more about the writer than the subject–there seemed something faintly self-aggrandizing in her attention to just how very bookish her family is, how very particular they are about grammar, how very much she loves books … I know, I know. It’s her life, and I don’t doubt that she’s entirely sincere, and these are all things I appreciate or share myself. There was just something in the tone that I didn’t warm to.

As a result, I ended up liking best the essays that were more about other people. My unexpected favorite was “The P.M.’s Empire of Books”–unexpected because who knew that Gladstone could provide such delights? Fadiman herself certainly had no idea, until she discovered his tiny volume On Books and the Housing of Them. It’s not a book that brings unmitigated pleasure (“he may be the only man in history to have written a long-winded twenty-nine-page book”). But it turns out he had an endearingly insane passion for organizing his vast and ever-expanding book collection, and this led him to produce this intense instruction manual reflecting, as Fadiman says, the “quintessentially Victorian traits” of “Energy. Priggishness. Disciplined nature and control. Conceit. Probity. Neatness and passion for order. Authoritarianism. Singlemindedness.” (This list, by the way, comes from the index entry for “Gladstone, William Ewart,” in Roy Jenkins’s biography.) Gladstone’s mission was to solve the familiar problem of “too many books, too little space.” He did not shy away from particulars:

Mr. G. calculated that a library twenty by forty feet, with projecting bookcases three feet long, twelve inches deep, and nine feet high (“so that the upper shelf can be reached by the aid of a wooden stool of two steps not more than twenty inches high”), would accommodate between eighteen thousand and twenty thousand volumes. I trust his arithmetic. He had, after all, been Chancellor of the Exchequer. This shelving plan would suffice for the home of an ordinary gentleman, but for cases of extreme book-crowding, he proposed a more radical scheme in which “nearly two-thirds, or say three-fifths, of the whole cubic contents of a properly constructed apartment may be made a nearly solid mass of books.” It was detailed in a footnote so extraordinary it bears quoting nearly in full…

And it does, but to read it yourself, you’ll have to get the book–either one, as it turns out AbeBooks actually has a number of copies of Gladstone’s listed for sale. I’ll just give you the spoiler here: Fadiman reports that Gladstone’s proposed “system of rolling shelves … is used in the Bodleian Library’s Radcliffe Camera and at the New York Times Book Review, among many other places.” Now that’s a contribution to civilization!

Another essay I particularly appreciated because it seemed so very timely was “Nothing New Under the Sun,” which deals in a sly and charming way with the complicated question of literary borrowing–or stealing. The 9-page essay has 38 footnotes, all of which help to mess with our heads about “the sea-change[8] through which an aggregation of words, common property when scattered throughout a dictionary, is transformed into a stealable asset.” You all know what fn 8 says, right? This essay ends with an anecdote about a writer who, in 1988, was found to have “incorporated entire paragraphs” from someone else’s book into a New Yorker essay. The writer was, it turned out, a “compulsive plagiarist” who “borrowed repeatedly” yet “what a gifted writer he was!–he didn’t need to do it.” Sound familiar?

6 thoughts on “Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

  1. Alex September 6, 2012 / 4:52 am

    It’s a long time since I read this. I can date it pretty much by the fact that I know I bought it in Heffers in Cambridge and I haven’t been over there since at least 2000. However, I know it’s still on my shelves because I saw it just the other day. I don’t remember being irritated by the voice, but then it was my first ‘book about books’ and I was so overjoyed to discover that there were other people who felt as strongly as I do that the voice would have been the last thing in my mind. I shall take it out with me this afternoon when I go down to the university and read a chapter in the gardens (it’s going to be a beautiful Indian Summer day) and have a re-think.


  2. Rohan September 6, 2012 / 11:09 am

    Leafing through the book again as I was writing this post, I kept trying to put my finger on an example that would justify my complaint about her tone, but I really couldn’t say “here is what I don’t like.” But since I haven’t had this reaction to other books in this genre (Lynne Sharon Schwarz’s, for instance), either there is something different about her tone or I was just feeling cranky–which, of course, is possible!


  3. Amateur Reader (Tom) September 6, 2012 / 1:32 pm

    I read a couple of the book’s chapters and had a similar response to the voice as yours – that it was arch verging on twee. So I gave up, and as a result missed that amazing Gladstone piece. Well, that can be remedied. Thanks!


  4. Stefanie September 6, 2012 / 2:47 pm

    I read this so long ago I don’t remember what her voice is like but I do recall I enjoyed a good many of the essays. You have me wanting to dip into though to see if I can detect what you are talking about!


  5. Kerry September 6, 2012 / 3:04 pm

    I adored this book. I suspect the difference in our reactions is that neither she nor you are really “common readers” after all, but for those of us who are, it seems a privilege to enter her circle. For someone who is as well read as she is, however, I would imagine that her perspective might be less extraordinary.


  6. Jo-Ann Burton September 8, 2012 / 6:09 pm

    I’m a collector(and reader) of Books about Books. I have about 60 so far and I reread them all the time. Fadiman is a favorite. Thanks for posting this article.


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